The birth of a child is a great joy, but unfortunately, it can be testing if the baby is born premature and needs to spend time in hospital.
For employers, it can be tricky too. What happens to the employee’s maternity leave? How should you communicate with the employee during this difficult and testing time? What support should you provide?
In this article, we will explore the law and answer these questions.
What is considered a premature baby?
The NHS defines premature babies as those born before 37 weeks.
What is the current law on leave for premature births?
At present, female employees are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave. If a woman gives birth prematurely, maternity leave will commence on the day after the baby is born and unlike in some other countries, leave is not extended. This can mean that by the time the baby is well enough to go home, an employee may have used up many months of maternity leave and loses that valuable time to bond and be with their newborn.
Fathers may be eligible for a week or two of paternity leave, which can be taken within eight weeks of the actual birth or eight weeks of the due date. Those with premature babies will often opt for second option, so they can take time off when the baby is at home.
What have people been campaigning about?
An online petition has been produced by the Smallest Things Campaign, which wants to extend statutory maternity leave in these circumstances. At present, it has nearly 170,000 signatures.
Towards the end of 2016, MP Steve Reed submitted a motion in Parliament to debate possible changes to the law to extend maternity leave for women who give birth early. However, this hasn’t been taken any further.
What can employers do to support employees who have premature babies?
At the start of this year, Waltham Forest Council granted employees the right to an additional seven days of leave for every week that the parents of the premature baby has to be spent in hospital before their child is permitted to go home.
But there other ways to support your employees at this difficult time, including:
- If the baby is very ill or faces a long road to recovery, a congratulations card may not be appropriate, but you can think of other ways to show that you acknowledge the birth and you are thinking of them. Often, it is small and priceless acts which matter the most to the employee.
- You should ask them how they want you to communicate the news to colleagues and be respectful of their wishes. They may want you to tell people straightaway or wait until the baby has been released from hospital.
- Communication may be difficult at this time, so make sure that when you are in touch with the employee, you are sensitive and empathetic. You should ask them what the best form of communication is and be aware they may find it hard to talk.
- When appropriate, you should talk to them about their statutory and contractual leave entitlements. Depending on the nature of their individual circumstances, this may involve discussing flexible working requests, Shared Parental Leave, unpaid parental leave and any special leave your organisation offers. You may also need to think ahead, especially if the baby needs further medical care and treatment.
- At this time, they may have huge worries on their shoulders, so try and support them as best you can. For example, if they are worried about their finances, you can think about what you could offer to help relieve the burden (i.e. an advance on their salary or a loan).
- When they do return to work, they may still be struggling to cope, so make sure you see what you can do help, for instance, you could consider a phased return to work, homeworking or other adjustments.
To explore this further, contact your Employment Law Adviser who can give you guidance and support.